Cambodia Scholarship

I have finished with David Chandler's _Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot_. I am now working on Nayan Chanda's _Brother Enemy_, an account of the Kampuchea-VN-China conflict by the Indochina correspondent of the Far Eastern Econ. Review. I also have a collection of essays edited by Karl Jackson entitled _Cambodia 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death_, with a pile of skulls on the book jacket; this must be taken as the official U.S. gov't collection, since all but 2 of the authors are State of Defense, and one of the other 2 is Ponchaud.

One of the sources cited by Chandler is very intriguing - can anybody find this: Thomas Engelbert and Christopher Goscha, _Falling Out of Touch: VN-Cambodian Communist Relations 1945-1975_, published as Monash Paper #35 by the Monash Asia Institute (Monash Univ., Australia). According to Chandler, this uses Vietnamese sources and records of contact between the Cambodian and Vietnamese parties. Chandler cites them on the issue of Vietnam's "pressure" on the Khmer Communists to refrain from armed struggle against Sihanouk during the period from 1960 to 1968 and to enter a united front with him.

I don't know whether to give Chandler's BNO the full treatment now or not. Maybe I'll start:

DATA: mostly secondary. There are three new sources here: Interviews by Chandler; newly discovered minutes of the CPK standing committee in 1975-1976; and many newly translated confessions from Tuol Sleng. But not much is done with them.

Unfortunately there is not much data on the life of Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar), and unfortunately Chandler has a tendency to fill it in with speculation, like this:

"Sar must have been traumatized by the solemn discipline of the monastery..."

"It is easy to imagine Saloth Sar .. watching the masked and powdered dancers ... perhaps including his sister and his brother's wife.."

"It is impossible to say which impressions of the palace prevailed among Saloth Sar's memories once he came to power ... [But let's guess! :-)] He may have been thinking of his own uprooted childhood in a potentially hostile city..."

And my favorite: SS "must have" been aware of the _History of the CPSU_ while he was in France, and: "It is tempting to picture Saloth Sar working through these turgid materials by dim light ...."

For the DK period (1975-1978) Chandler relies a lot on works in French by Martin and also on the journalist Elizabeth Becker's _When the War Was Over_, which has a rep. as very anti-DK. Chandler finds this phrase worth quoting: Sar entered Phnom Penh "like a nocturnal predator [that] shuns daylight." He labels Becker's book a "persuasive analysis."

Part of the historiographic problem I have with Chandler is that it seems that if he doesn't like what X says he will let you know that X exists but then just go on citing other sources without engaging X. He cites Ponchaud as an "eloquent" source on the horrors of the regime. Then he lets you know that Vickery and also Chomsky and Herrmann disagree, but he just goes on with the Ponchaud/Becker conventional wisdom without saying why. Similarly he treats the purges of 1976 on as a search for enemies because Maoist ideology "requires" enemies. Yet he knows of a source who claims that there really WAS an attempt to assassinate Pol Pot in 1976, which provoked the purges. But he doesn't mention it.


Chandler really doesn't understand the whole concept of revolutionaries wanting to make revolution. He has the notion that if the CPK had not done bad things and had only made wise, liberal decisions, everyone in Cambodia could have lived peacefully and happily together like God and his angels in France. Thus, about the evacuation in 1975:

"With victory, there was to be no consensus or healing. Psychological wounds on both sides were to be left unbandaged. To those who had welcomed the Communists' victory, this policy of hatred was bewildering. Most of the people in Phnom Penh were poverty-stricken refugees from the countryside. They were ready to help the Red Khmer."

But there is no evidence cited to support this generalization. This is another bad habit: every so often a paragraph is thrown in with no evidence, like:

"Had Saloth Sar responded as stubbornly as he said he did [in talks with the Vietnamese leaders in 1965], the Vietnamese would have found someone else to lead the Cambodian Communist Party. They would not have allowed him to visit China."

and, on Saloth Sar's life in the forest from 1963 to 1970:

"[They] talked continuously to each other, bonding together and reinforcing their paranoia and their self-assurance ... because his realm was insubstantial, his ideas could be Utopian."

Back to the policies of the DK government: Chandler takes them to task for neglecting health care in the 4-year plan:

"Survivors' memories teem with grisly accounts of arrogant, untrained medical practitioners in the countryside.."

.. but at this time there were, if I recall from Vickery, maybe 150 doctors in ALL of Kampuchea after the fall of Phnom Penh and before any CPK action against them, so most of the people weren't going to get good medical care under ANY imaginable circumstances. He goes on:

"There is something ominous, even repulsive, about outsiders to poverty and rural life fashioning for rural people a 20th century state from nothing, while forbidding them the benefits that might have accrued from education, science, and technology.."

.. all of which would certainly have rained down on the rural Cambodian populace, we are supposed to believe, if only the Khmer Communists had pursued a policy of "consensus."

Furthermore Chandler finds it possible to argue both ways on a topic. For example, he takes the Vietnamese to task for urging the Khmer communists to pursue a "suicidal" policy of refraining from armed struggle against Sihanouk in 1965. But later on, after the Vietnamese truce in 1973, he scores the Khmers: "They preferred civil war, American bombardment, and operating in secret to reviving a genuine united front" with Sihanouk.

[Chandler has an axe to grind against the Vietnamese too: They were "obsessed with fighting the United States", if you please.]

In discussing the DK economic policy, which depended (like pretty much ALL development policy in non-industrial states, I might say) on raising enough crops (rice) to export and get foreign exchange to purchase manufactured goods, Chandler remarks,

"To cynics, this might seem like the colonial prescription without the material incentives connected with profit, markets, land ownership, and money..."

.. but then he attacks the parts of the Four-Year Plan which DO talk about industrialization and says that "Cambodia has never had the resources to sustain industrialization." Which is to say that selling rice really WAS the only way. Chandler of course thinks that only the magic power of "material incentives" can grow rice.

With regard to industrialization, Chandler condemns the "leaders' ignorance of industry and their refusal to use experts", and yet in the same paragraph he mentions that China sent 4000 technicians and that "Chinese and North Korean aid concentrated on refurbishing prewar industries and building new ones."

Of course once you know with 20 years' hindsight that things went to hell in Kampuchea, you can point at everything the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea did and say "See, this is bad, this is bad, this is amateurish, this is stupid, this contributed to the disaster" etc. I come away with a rather different impression. The Four-Year Plan, which Chandler and Kiernan attack so vigorously, is NOT entirely crazy. Selling rice really WAS the only way ahead. The slapdash and afterthought-like way in which industry was treated didn't matter. The goal of "Three Tons per Hectare" could not be met, but that doesn't matter so much either. What mattered (one of the things) was that the administrative regime was fucked. Chandler:

"As lower ranking cadre and officials, fearful of reprisals, struggled to apply what they took to be the exigencies of the plan, they made unworkable demands on the people under them ..." In the Northwest Region, where 140,000 new hectares were to be brought under cultivation, and most of the rice surplus for export was to come from, cadres made up their "surplus" quota out of the rice that the "reserves" which the people were supposed to eat. "Reports of these conditions took time to reach the 'Higher Organization'... the news transmitted up the line was always good, causing false optimism at the top."

When all this was discovered, the Northwest region was "purged" of "enemies."

I have to break off here and go home.. This is not even close yet to the "definitive analysis"... I will post some "themes" which are guiding my thoughts as I go through this stuff, including: - "objective", environmental obstacles that the revolution had to deal with - "subjective" / ideological problems (like voluntarism, hostility to Viet Nam, unhealthy party organization, "national sectarianism" (I'll define this term)) - factual episodes: The evacuation, the economy, the 1976-77 purges, the war with Viet Nam, the 1978 Eastern rebellion and reprisals

And a theoretical framework which I am using to look at this, based, of course, on Sam Marcy's work. Sorry. WYSIWYG.

Am I the only one doing this, BTW? Or are there other people still on the "Kampuchea project"?

For those who are still following this:

Ben Kiernan, author of _The Pol Pot Regime_ which is now (according to its reviews) THE definitive scholarly work on Democratic Kampuchea, is also the director of the Cambodia Genocide Project at Yale University, which is funded by the State Department and has had a close working relationship with the government of Cambodia. In fact, the CGP is not merely a research agency, but is involved in the actual project of preparing the case which will be presented against the "Khmer Rouge" in any proposed war crimes tribunal.

Again, I don't think this transmutes Kiernan's book into trash. However, I think people should know that, in dealing with Kiernan, one is dealing not only with a disinterested researcher who holds the DK leaders responsible for the murder of his wife's entire family. One is dealing with an actual organizer of the U.S.-sponsored war crimes tribunal, whose hypothetical existence, as listorians may remember, touched off this whole thread.

By way of "full disclosure", here are some (possibly too long) excerpts from the (much longer) report of the CGP to the State Department, taken from their website at . This is also an interesting case study in the relationship between scholars and government, IMHO.

[excerpts are omitted here--check the Yale site for details]


On Sat, 6 Jun 1998, Louis Proyect wrote:

"The controversy, it seems to me, is whether or not they were legitimate Maoists or some form of highly toxic mutant strand of peasant radicalism. Right?"

Of course there are some people, not including myself, who believe that Maoism itself is no better than a "mutant strand of peasant radicalism."

There are a bunch of controversies, LPr, among which I can list the following (this is not the systematic list):

1. How much of the death toll / suffering of the people (and/or of the peasantry) of Cambodia during the DK period was due to the following causes: - (a) Causes which no socialist regime would have been able to avoid (such as famine or disease unavoidably resulting from the previous devastation of the war) - (b) Unavoidable unintended effects of the inexperience, poor organization, and limited education of the CPK cadre - (c) Costs which were unavoidable by the CPK, given the ideology of the CPK, but which could (probably) have been avoided if they had not held certain positions (such as that aid from the Warsaw Pact and cooperation with Viet Nam were to be avoided, or that agriculture should be immediately nationalized) - (d) Costs of the undemocratic, inflexible, and sectarian party regime - (e) Violence by local CPK cadre, contrary to national CPK policy - (f) Violence organized by the CPK nationally against perceived enemies

(Obviously there are problems with this classification and there are interaction effects)

2. If the CPK leadership had avoided certain policies which I would consider to be "obviously wrong", such as hostility to Viet Nam, and expelling, torturing, and killing policy dissidents within the CPK, how well would they have been able to make their very ambitious economic and political plans work?

3. If a revolutionary government pursues a harsh policy, even a policy of extermination, toward a group which it, with some justification, believes to contain a significant number of enemies ("former Lon Nol officers", for example), how should socialists elsewhere react?

4. How can revolutionaries in disadvantageous circumstances overcome the sort of "prisoners' dilemma" situation that we have seen in places besides Kampuchea (Grenada, Afghanistan, and El Salvador, e.g.), where Cde. A thinks "Cde. B is very wrong about issue X. If the party takes his line, the revolution will be destroyed. I can't take that risk, so I have to kill Cde. B right now", and Cde. B thinks the same thing about Cde. A ?

5. How can revolutionaries outside countries like Cambodia offer support, guidance, and/or input so that events like this do not happen?

Louis P. "I have to carve out some time to some of my own research on this matter, but I have strong suspicions that the Khmer Rouge was not Marxist, but rather a peasant radical formation."

I don't know what this means, LPr. Does this mean that peasants can't be Marxist? And how much Marxism do you have to know to be a Marxist?

I am convinced that the CPK's ideology was Marxist in the same sense that a lot of parties which I disagree with are Marxist. They were strongly affected by the radical Maoism of the Cultural Revolution. They were not very deep theoretical analysts, and they did not encourage their members to read or study anything in the world tradition of "Marxist writings." I think they were shoddy Marxists in many ways. (This paragraph refers to the period up till 1979.)

It is uncontroversial that the top CPK leaders were urban intellectuals and that the CPK was made up mostly of poor peasants and that very few of the CPK were proletarians. The theoretical conclusions to be drawn from that are controversial. Some people say that this means that they weren't really "socialists" at all, in the sense of being part of the world working class movement; they are "merely" a peasant force and have nothing really to do with us, they are alien to us. This is in my view sort of a cop-out and an illegitimate attempt to avoid the hard questions by distancing ourselves from Democratic Kampuchea. It is more challenging, in my view, to look at the CPK as comrades gone terribly wrong and led by bad theory and horrible principles of party organization into very bad mistakes and crimes. Their theory and principles have echoes in the theory and principles of people around us, or even in our own. There were plenty of forces in the U.S. left who said that the Soviet Union was the main enemy of the world's peoples. There are people in a.p.s.t. who are as rigid in defining "enemies" as the CPK was. There were plenty of us in the left who read Mao's articles like "The Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains" and the "Quotations" and who learned slogans like "A small country can defeat a big country." Later in Democratic Kampuchea these slogans were used to "prove" that any arbitrarily selected goal could be accomplished, and that anyone who doubted it was an enemy of the party. I don't think that means we were wrong to be inspired by the articles, but it does mean that we have to learn the proper balance between the subjective and the objective factors. A small country cannot in fact defeat an arbitrarily big country at any arbitrarily selected time.

Louis Proyect: "The project of moving people out of the city into the countryside is antithetical to Marxism, which seeks to resolve these contradictions through gradual changes in the economy. One of the most effective mechanisms for getting people back to the countryside has been through radical land reform, which encourages small proprietorship. I am under the impression that the Khmer Rouge was less interested in creating a class of petty proprietors than in abolishing urban society."

They were certainly not interested in creating a class of petty proprietors. I don't believe they were interesting in abolishing "urban society" per se, but they were interested in abolishing the type of urban society that they had, which was in their view a parasitical and unproductive urban society, almost completely non-industrial. And, for that matter, non-Khmer. In 1970, the majority of the population of Phnom Penh was of Chinese and Vietnamese ethnicity. So here the nationalistic strain feeds in. In any case by 1975 the cities were an order of magnitude more unnatural than they had been before the war, being bloated with hangers-on of imperialism, refugees from the bombing, and so on, and not being like anything you would call "urban society" at all.

The Khmer Rouge were explicitly dedicated to rapid and dramatic social change, not to "gradual changes in the economy". I don't see how rapid change is "antithetical to Marxism" though. I am always hesitant to label anything as being "antithetical to Marxism" and to "reading people out" of the working-class movement. The CPK was not hesitant to do that. People like Hou Youn, who disagreed with the evacuation of the cities, were labelled as counterrevolutionaries and shot. This should, I think be a cautionary example. It is indeed common among ruling parties to label Marxist policy opponents as "enemies of the party", "anti-party groups", wreckers, spitters, counterrevolutionaries, fascist, etc. In Democratic Kampuchea, you were an "enemy" if you favored retaining money or didn't want to suppress the monks. We need less of that, not more, so I don't favor jumping to label people "enemies" if they want to abolish money or do want to suppress monks.

Louis Proyect: "The reason it is important for Marxists to come to terms with the Khmer Rouge controversy is that, unlike practically any other form of Marxist "excess" in the 20th century, this one has a particularly damaging character. Although I don't necessarily agree with Isaac Deutscher's relatively benign account of Stalin's regime, it is sort of understandable in terms of the need for 'primitive accumulation of capital.' Can anybody make sense of the Khmer Rouge in anything that remotely resembles this? I can't."

There are several parts to it, LPa. The economic plan is very much about accumulating capital. Briefly:

- They wanted to industrialize. - But they had almost no industrial base. - This meant that they had to sell as much rice as possible to get the capital to industrialize. (Cambodia was traditionally a rice exporter.) - Therefore, they put the non-productive urban population to work growing rice; preparing land to grow rice; and developing irrigation facilities for the growing of rice. (Industrial workers were kept in the cities.) - Furthermore, they had to do it very fast because they believed that Viet Nam would destroy them otherwise, because (a) they were allies of the USSR, hence enemies, and (b) they "knew" that the Vietnamese Communists had predatory ambitions.

But this meant that anyone who urged restraint in meeting the economic goals was an objective traitor and a Vietnamese agent.

The Democratic Kampuchea experience is not simple to describe. It isn't like Hitler's death camps. The people tortured, forced to confess, and killed at Tuol Sleng are only a very small part of the total picture. There are a lot of parts:

Beginning in 1975: - The evacuation of the cities - Initial violence against Lon Nol officers and perceived enemies - The agricultural plan - The local administration of the agricultural plan (bad working conditions in some regions, especially for former urban dwellers; failure to use peasant expertise; bad planning of irrigation works).

From 1976 on: - Deaths due to malnutrition and/or overwork - Deaths due to disease (due to bad sanitation/working conditions) - Political crisis; purges and killing of CPK cadre - Implementation of "large cooperative" measures begins around here (communal eating; ?anti-family measures)

From 1977 on: - War with Viet Nam - An apparent wave of suppression/killing of suspect groups (surviving Lon Nol troops, perhaps intellectuals, etc.) - Purges and killing of CPK cadre continue to mount - Life on the cooperatives apparently? becomes worse; more coercion; more arbitrary violence (?)

1978: - Civil conflict between Phnom Penh leadership and the Eastern Zone CPK structure, who are labelled as CIA/Vietnamese agents. Massacres of anyone suspected of collaboration with them; highest level of anti-civilian violence in the entire DK period - Purges and killing of CPK cadre at highest level

1979: - Vietnamese/National Salvation force takes Phnom Penh in January, takes over most of country during course of the year - Reprisal killings of CPK cadre - CPK-controlled regions suffer from famine; high mortality among CPK soldiers/civilians who flee Kampuchea and appear on Thai border near the end of 1979.

The "death toll" of the regime, which may be as low as 750,000 or as high as 2 million, is the sum of all the above. It seems certain that MOST of the people who died were not direct victims of violence, but victims of disease, malnutrition, or exhaustion. "MOST" means anywhere from 60% to 95%, depending on whose numbers you believe.

I can't write any more on this now, it's way too late.. Again, I am still working on various sources and so the above should be regarded as preliminary.

--Louis Paulsen